Brief Encounters – Homegrown at Empire Theatre Studio

Image: Kate Foy; Sand Drawing: Damien Kamholtz

Last night’s theatre excursion was closer to home than many in the last few weeks have been for me. It was to Brief Encounters at Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre Studio – and what a lovely little performance space this is.

Brief Encounters is the latest of the theatre’s Homegrown Studio series which sees local artists – established, emerging and embryonic – working together on the kinds of new work which so often never get to see stage lights shine on them. It’s vital, generative activity and the fact that it is being sponsored and supported by local business and the local council gives me great heart and delight that I live outside the capital city in a community that values such work. Regional artists don’t get to say that often but then, Toowoomba has always valued its art and, well, credit where credit is due. Now, it seems, there is also a place for that most arcane or, at least, often misunderstood of art forms – performance art.

artistic blind date meets creation under-the-gun. (Katy Harris-McLeod: the Tomorrow Collective)

Not all of this kind of work is what might be called successful in terms of being finished ‘product.’ That’s not the point; incompleteness, rawness, and even a bit of self-indulgence are expected in the service of creative experimentation – although several of the encounters were delightfully complete in themselves and quite free of any self-consciousness. With its time constraints Brief Encounters almost works against the pressure most artists feel to put something together that is worthy of sharing in terms of polish and finesse or completeness. Continue reading “Brief Encounters – Homegrown at Empire Theatre Studio”

Review: Chasing the Lollyman – Debase Productions with Artour Queensland – Empire Studio (Toowoomba)

As I sat in the near full Studio at the Empire a couple of nights ago, I was conscious of the fact that there were Murri audience members all around. Now, that doesn’t happen very often in Toowoomba. Why not is another question.

Why such a mixed audience was there on a cold night on a Thursday was because deBase’s production of Chasing the Lollyman was in town. The play, which had its first production in Brisbane in 2010, is currently on tour through the auspices of Artour Queensland. It was NAIDOC week and the only opportunity locals would get to see a play whose reputation has preceded it. It was, in fact, a perfect time to come together and spend an evening with Mark Sheppard one of the funniest stand-up comedians working today. Chasing the Lollyman is a very personal one-man show about identity, and grounded in the idea and power of family. Mr Sheppard’s story as a gay, Aboriginal man – a Muluridgi man from Mareeba, a small country town in far-north Queensland – unfolds over  75 minutes in a space framed by a perfectly-designed touring set – a series of poles decorated with indigenous-style motifs. They are actually boxes that contain items to accompany the stories he tells, either as symbols or costume pieces and props.

Mr Sheppard traces his background in a series of yarns, terrific contemporary-traditional dance pieces, song, and audience interaction – for once, the interaction part isn’t embarrassing. He kicks over a lot of barriers along the way, all without a trace of bitterness. He talks to us, with us – now a part of his ‘family’ – and, for me at least, gave permission to lose the guilt for a bit and laugh along with him at the really, really funny stories about his own family and the patronising liberal attitudes to indigenous Australians. Chasing the Lollyman‘s laughter and gentle approach mask generations of hurt and sadness, but they are never far from the surface, and why should they be?

I was unprepared for the powerful way the play’s humour, biting satire, and the personality of Mr Sheppard himself was able to work on us. God knows, many in the audience would have been aware of the cloud of white guilt that invariably hangs around any gathering dealing with the treatment of indigenous Australians present and past. It is a tribute to the writers (Sheppard co-devised with Liz Skitch) that these issues are never skirted but met head on. They are dealt with in that most powerful of ways – laughter. ‘Sit beside a Murri,’ he suggested at the show’s start, ‘and you’ll know when to laugh.’ Satire is deadly!

The most powerful part of the evening is reserved for the final 10 minutes where, for this very short time indeed, Mr Sheppard assumes the role of the first indigenous Prime Minister of Australia, and calls us into a collective dreaming of reconciled unity – as family. He invites us to imagine the potential this would have for every Australian. It is stunning in its theatrical power to imagine and rehearse an as-yet unfulfilled idea. You could have heard a pin drop.

Chasing the Lollyman is currently on tour throughout south-east Queensland. Check the website for details on where it is heading. If it plays in your town, see it.

It is also the second in the new Homegrown Series of independent works being produced and/or presented by the Empire Theatre Projects Company. The first was the Australian play Blackrock which played last month. Greenroom will be following and reviewing the remainder of these independent productions in the Studio Series.